Baseball Short Story
Too Close for Comfort
Dom Amore, Baseball Digest (July/August 2020)
James H. Clarkin journeyed to Boston on September 9, 1918, with the best of inten­tions - and a fantastic idea. The nation was at war ..., and everyone wanted to make the boys "Over There" feel as much at home as possible.
The folks in Hartford CO wanted to raise money, buy as much sporting equipment as they could and send it to France, so the local boys could play a little baseball or football in their idle hours before battle. Clarkin, who owned the Eastern League's Hartford Senators, made the trip to Boston's Fenway Park just as the Red Sox and Cubs were arriving from Chicago to finish the World Series, held early that year because of The Great War.
After the Red Sox won Game 4, Clarkin made his pitch. Suppose, when the Series was over, the Red Sox and Cubs made the short trip to Hartford for a rematch, play a game or two to raise the money for the equipment. He offered each team $1,000, and a piece of the gate to divvy up, the rest of the proceeds going to buy bats, gloves and balls for Hartford's Doughboys.
With attendance down because of the war, the players were going to be getting a smaller-than-usual World Series share, a little over $1,100, and were not happy about it, threatening a strike to stop the Series. Maybe they'd be interested in making a few extra bucks to make up for it?
Clarkin struck out. Many players were going into the Army or off to fulfill "work or fight" orders in factories, and others just wanted to go home.
But Babe Ruth liked the idea.
So Clarkin did not return to Hartford empty-handed; he had plans in place for Ruth and a group of major-leaguers to take a barnstorming trip through New England, with two stops in Hartford the week after the Series.
Surely The Babe, already the biggest attraction in baseball at age 23, would pack them in. He even donated the ball he had socked for the triple during the World Series to be auctioned off for the cause.

L-R: Babe Ruth, Fenway Park in 1918
But there was one thing no one seemed to consider - the pandemic storming through New England at the very same time. The Spanish Flu, which caused havoc in the spring, had returned in a more deadly second wave, spreading from Boston's Fort Devens and ripping through the city that September.
"As the World Series was played in Boston September 9, 10, and 11, by that time, we know what's going on - it's spreading," said Randy Roberts, co-author of War Fever: Boston, Baseball and America in the Shadow of the Great War. "And clearly, what is shown by this barnstorming tour is that people weren't paying attention. We shouldn't have been in large crowds."
There were warnings from health officials - but not the restrictions of the coronavirus of 2020 - to get between Ruth and his adoring fans in Connecticut. If there were two things that just couldn't go together, it was Babe Ruth and "social distancing." The Babe lived to draw crowds, and to monetize his popularity with post-season barnstorming tours for fans who would otherwise never get to see him.
On September 11, the players grudgingly decided to play and the Red Sox clinched the 1918 World Series. Three days later, Ruth arrived in New Haven to play first base for the Colonials ... The opponents were a team of all-stars from the Negro leagues, who won 5-1, but Ruth homered. ...
After the game in New Haven, Ruth was driven to Hartford, about 40 miles away, in a luxury car draped in the American flag. He arrived at a crowded lobby at the Hotel Bond, where a reception was planned, but Ruth was tired and uncharacteristically went to bed early. He was pitching the next day.
Ruth, The Hartford Courant reported, was to receive $350 for the appearance at the Hartford Baseball Grounds on September 15. ... Extra trolleys were added that day to make it easy for out-of-town fans to reach Hartford, and 5,000 filled the park.
Yet even as this was happening, doctors were making house calls and the hospitals in the city were getting crowded treating victims of the influenza, or "the grip."
It was the worst possible time to be pressed up against other fans at a ballgame. But who could resist going out to see Ruth? ...
By all accounts, it was a great day. Ruth pitched the whole game, outdueled Leonard, 1-0, and his long drive in the eighth inning conked off the "Bull Durham" sign in deep CF, going for a double.
In addition to the gate, Ruth's ball was auctioned off for $195, and a Ty Cobb bat for nearly as much.
However, by the end of the week, there were 500 people in Hartford Hospital with the Spanish Flu.
"The spread of the disease is regarded as phenomenal by physicians," The Courant reported on September 21. "It is believed that the first case did not appear a week ago. In this short time, practically the whole city has been exposed to the contagion."
The virus was approaching Hartford from the northeast, with people returning from Boston, and from the southeast, where a severe outbreak had been reported at the docks in New London, where soldiers were coming and going.
It was right in that week of the 15th to the 22nd that the numbers exploded around Boston. So the timing of 500 cases in Hartford by the end of the week matches what was happening next door.
Ruth and his traveling troupe of major-leaguers traveled 25 miles north to Springfield for a game during the week, then returned to Hartford for September 22.
"It's the patriotic duty of anyone taken with the disease to isolate himself or herself," read a warning from John T. Black of the Connecticut Board of Health. "Public gatherings held indoors should be avoided."
On the day before the scheduled doubleheader, The Courant reported, "Wherever people are crowded together, as in the trolley cars and similar places, all are likely to be exposed and a large percentage of cases will result. It may even be necessary to close the theaters and other amusement places if the epidemic grows as it has in the past few days."
But even as the local papers were pleading with people to avoid big crowds, they were tempting the locals to come out and see Babe Ruth, and for this second appearance 3,000 came to the park. The gates were open and children swarmed the outfield to watch from the warning track.
Players were taking ill even as the doubleheader was being played. SS Larry Kopf, who played for the Cincinnati Redlegs, played in the first game, came out in the late innings and sat out the second. It was reported he had the Spanish Flu, but he recovered to help the Reds win the tainted World Series a year later.
Ruth again pitched for Poli's, but this time Ruth lost 1-0. ...
After the second game, Ruth and the boys left town and scattered, a little richer, and having raised enough money to send the sporting goods overseas. Ruth traveled to Bethlehem PA to work in a steel mill, though his primary job was to play ball for the company team.
He played one game, then went to stay with family in his hometown of Baltimore. Ruth had the Spanish Flu, the Baltimore Sun reported. He recovered fairly quickly and shattered the home run record with 29 in 1919, his last season with the Red Sox.
It was only at the start of October that states such as Connecticut began to respond to the health crisis the way they did when COVID-19 hit 102 years later. Public events, such as fairs and football games, churches, schools and war bond drives were canceled and the wearing of cotton muslin masks was urged. But more than 5,000 flu-related deaths were recorded in Connecticut by the end of October, and eventually the pandemic of 1918 would claim 9,000 lives, or one percent of the state's population.
In the U.S., there were 675,000 deaths, more than the total on both sides in the Civil War.